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Myanmar’s civil society in turbulent times: outside-in and inside-out

By Maaike Matelski –

Ten years ago I published an article on my research with civil society actors from Myanmar, in which I described the sudden changes in ideological and physical positioning as the country underwent an unexpected transition from decades of military dictatorship to quasi-civilian rule. Activists ‘inside’ Myanmar, as it was commonly called, emerged from their previously covert activities by engaging in political discussions and human rights-related work. After the first elections in decades were held in 2010, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won the following (by)elections in 2012 and 2015.

Back then I witnessed some of the earliest encounters between civil society actors from inside the country and those operating from exile. The latter were considered out of touch with recent developments, with donors suddenly urging them to move their operations back inside the country or risk losing funding. Actors operating inside the country, in turn, were accused of siding with, or not speaking out against the military, particularly in the early years of the transition around cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the 2010 elections. The perceived or real differences between groups ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the country, but also between those seeking gradual versus revolutionary change caused some frictions, as I describe in my recent book Contested Civil Society in Myanmar.

In the following years all sides proved partly right; by 2014, political events and human rights work took place in relative openness, especially in central Myanmar, while the military under two consecutive elected governments continued to commit serious human rights violations, particularly against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. This caused a new split within Myanmar’s civil society, with a small group standing up for the rights of repressed minorities, while others continued to support the NLD government. Donors proceeded to push civil society organizations towards peacebuilding activities, which generated limited results.

The military coup of 1 February 2021 following the second national election victory of the NLD thrust the country back into darkness. Having sensed increased freedoms, digital literacy and knowledge of politics and human rights, Myanmar’s younger generation, together with factory workers and civil servants, took to the streets in what was initially a festive atmosphere. This positive vibe was lost when the military responded violently by killing and imprisoning dissidents, with 150 demonstrators killed on one day (27 March, known as ‘Armed Forces Day’) alone. In response, resistance slowly turned violent, with People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) being formed in urban areas of central Myanmar with no history of public dissent.

The central regions of Sagaing and Magway have since remained hotbeds of resistance. The newly formed PDFs received shelter and assistance from ‘ethnic armed organizations’ with a long history of resistance against the military in areas such as Kayah, Kayin and Kachin States. The resistance has been met with fierce responses from the military which according to verified (and probably under-reporting) numbers has arrested over 25,000 dissidents since the coup, killed 4400 people, burned down 80,000 houses, and generated millions of new refugees in addition to those already displaced.

Since 27 October 2023 a coalition of ethnic armed organizations (who now call themselves revolutionaries) known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance and People’s Defence Forces have coordinated attacks against the weakened Myanmar military, claiming control of a large territory and seizing weapons from defecting military soldiers. While fighting continues and the military retaliates against civilians, these forces proceed to work out alternative governance systems, seeking to protect cultural heritage and rid the areas under their control of organized crime syndicates, particularly in northern Shan State on the border with China.

What do these recent developments and shifting landscapes mean for the civil society activists I have worked with for over a decade? I recently encountered some of them in a border town where many activists without the resources, connections or interest to relocate to Western countries have taken refuge. They have resorted back to the security measures and covert operations during the early years of the political transition period described in my book, although with more advanced tactics and digital literacy than in previous eras, as many activities since Covid and the 2021 coup are taking place online. Their previous experience of working cross-border comes in handy now that civic space in Myanmar has closed almost entirely, but the secrecy of previous decades has returned in order not to endanger counterparts who remain inside the country.

Activists struggle with severe new traumas and conflicting emotions as they are hopeful for the armed resistance to succeed, yet grieve their lost years of relative freedom and the lives they had managed to build up. Moreover, they must come to terms with the fact that the struggle they hoped would remain non-violent has turned into armed resistance as the only remaining strategy to defeat the military, despite the high price in terms of civilian casualties and displacement. They view the current struggle as an end-game: ‘If we do not stand up now for our rights, there will be no future generation left to fight for our country’, according to a seasoned activist, ‘taking up the armed struggle was a hard choice, but it is our only choice.’

For many of the activists in central Myanmar, contributing to or supporting armed resistance is a new strategy with uncertain ends, but the military has left them no alternative. This is the sad point where Myanmar’s civil society has found itself recently. Their resilience as documented by myself and others will hopefully prove enough to secure a future where peace, rights and prosperity triumph over violence and destruction, though there may be a long road ahead.

Maaike Matelski is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. She recently published her book Contested Civil Society in Myanmar: Local Change and Global Recognition, which is partly open access. Readers can use code CNF24 for 50% discount on the hardback and ebook.

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